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By Ben Furman and Christine Beuer
Helping Kids Take Charge
Over the past couple of decades, children's behavioral problems have been increasingly medicalized—conceived as psychiatric disorders, diagnosed by medical professionals, and, with increasing frequency, treated with psychoactive drugs. Too often, the results of this approach include not only physical and mental side effects, but the pervasive disempowerment of the kids, their parents, their teachers, and their entire social network. If the child has a "medical" problem, there's not much that the child, or anybody in his or her life, can do to change it except focus on the pills and follow doctor's orders. Should the medical model fail to live up to its promises (as it often does), the result can be an even greater sense of hopelessness and frustration. What's left to do once the miracle drug has "failed"?
Of course, psychotherapy can have its own drawbacks. It's expensive, often inconvenient, requires a substantial investment in time, and can promote a sense of helplessness in children and parents as they wait—sometimes for years—for the "expert" intervention of professionals to have an effect.
Sometimes, of course, medications or psychotherapy are indicated, but there are many more times than we may realize when kids who get a little coaching and some help from their families, teachers, and friends, show themselves capable of solving their own behavioral problems with a minimum of expert involvement. When children are helped to take charge of changing their own behavior in a way that includes all the people who care about them (and whom they care about), not only can they make astonishing progress, but they develop more self-confidence and greater social adeptness with their peers.
What Is Kids' Skills?
In the 1990s, I worked as staff supervisor of a preschool in Helsinki, Finland, caring for children with special needs—most with one or more psychiatric diagnoses, such as AD/HD, Asperger's syndrome, ODD, or pervasive developmental disorder. The special education teachers of this preschool and I developed an effective, practical model for helping these children, which we hoped would appeal to them and their families. Inspired by the therapeutic ideas of Milton Erickson and solution-focused, cognitive, and narrative therapies, we developed a practical, step-by-step program to help kids aged 4 to 12 overcome emotional and behavioral problems while drawing on the support and encouragement of their families, friends, and others close to them. Known as Kids' Skills (KS) and now practiced in several countries, the model is founded on the premise that most children's problems can be reconceived not as permanent deficits, but as skills they don't yet have and certainly can learn.
For example, if a child's problem is that he shouts or talks too loudly, the skill would be learning to speak softly and quietly. A child who gets into fights needs to learn the skill of keeping cool even when infuriated. Help the child learn the missing skill, and the problem will recede of its own accord! It's important that the skill be defined not as something negative—"I won't swear," or "I shall not hit other children"—but as something positive, which the child can do, practice, and demonstrate.
In addition to being brief, economic, and nonpathologizing, Kids' Skills fosters an atmosphere of cooperation among child, therapist, parents, and social milieu. Children don't like being reminded of unpleasant problems, but they do enjoy learning something new and interesting, particularly when they can learn it in a way that's fun and quickly rewarding, and lets them be in charge. Parents are eager to cooperate in this approach because they're regarded first and foremost as partners in the process, with an important role in encouraging their children to learn their new skill. While it may look like yet another behavior-modification technique with a clever reward and reinforcement system, Kids' Skills is designed to focus not only on the child, but on the psychological ecosystem around the child, engaging the child's entire social network. It can be used not only by child and family therapists, but also by other professionals working with children, including occupational therapists, speech therapists, school counselors, social workers, nurses, and teachers.